This year I have taken in two of the better, if more obscure, musical seasons presented by local arts organizations: the Nova Chamber Music Series, drawing largely from the luminous musicians of the Utah Symphony as well as other mostly local talent, and the Salt Lake Chamber Society’s season of touring Chamber Music ensembles.
After twenty-odd years of huddling in the corner, it was time to get out and experience more of Salt Lake City than just six nights a week at work and the occasional art film. As part of an overall set of strategies to live a larger life, which includes walking more and driving less, and doing instead of thinking about doing, it was time to take a seat at the table. Although art, music and poetry are no strangers to me, this was about attending to local art and culture events in an aggressive way. Here is the way I look at it: the water is fine if you want to get your feet wet, and the weather is perfect for a larger life than the one you are living.
Music in Salt Lake City is happening every night somewhere, as it is in any largish city. There are many advertised places to see live music in all its “it-ness,” but only some of these shows are worth your time and shekels. The Salt Lake Chamber Music Society Concert on Tuesday, April 24 with the Pavel Haas Quartet was a perfect example. Having won the Gramophone Awards recording of the year in 2011 for their recording of Dvorak's String Quartets No. 12 in F major 'American' and No. 13 in G major, they were well received here and their performance was well attended. The “fame” of a chamber music group is similar to the fame of your great uncle who was at Pearl Harbor. Genuine, but also esteemed by only a few people.
This quartet, a Prague-based group with a somewhat nationalist sensibility, is named after Pavel Haas, the concentration camp murdered Czech composer, whose quartets they have recorded. Husband and wife Veronicka Jaruskova – violin, and Peter Jarusek - cello, were joined by Eva Karova on violin and Pavel Nikl on viola. Hearing them, they had a fluid and intuitive sound, but watching them play was like watching musicians in a rowboat at sea violently rocking on the waves.
Their first selection, Bedrich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, "From My Life," was a surprise to me. It was unexpectedly beautiful, sounding not as programmatic as it apparently is. Sometimes called the “father of Czech opera,” Smetana is a master of inward-looking string quartets. His notes on this first quartet, (featured also in the movie Sneakers), are for each of the four movements, like notes on his life, from destiny and its call, to love and marriage, to old age and his impending deafness. Energetic and optimistic without being forgettable, the piece is sharp and spirited, and to listen as it was played in this performance was like being given a gift.
The second piece of the show, Schubert’s “String Quartet No. 14 in D. minor, d. 810, Opus Posthumous,” called “Death and The Maiden,” was started four years before Schubert's death when he first discovered he had tertiary syphilis and would certainly die. It was not published until three years after his death in 1831, and was played only twice during his lifetime, both times with significant cuts. Unique for Schubert, all four movements are in a minor key, which re-enforces the dark and foreboding character of the piece with its menacing triplet theme and prominently featured tarantella, the dance of death. It is one of the primary quartets, a staple of concert halls and record collections. The Pavel Haas did a nice enough job with this piece, and even though I am a diehard fan of Schubert, I found the Smetana much more compelling and intense.
Also worth mentioning are the program notes on the composers and the performers by Susan Goodfellow for the SLCS which accompany each of these concerts. Crisp, informative, and just a little gossipy, applause is well deserved for her fine efforts which are always readable, well themed and full.
The Nova Chamber Music Series’ season finale on Sunday, April 1, pushed minimal to the maximum, featuring what Musical Director Jason Hardink called the most ambitious and expensive concert ever in Nova history. Utah Symphony Director Thierry Fischer directed a chamber orchestra of local musicians through a pair of chamber symphonies from Schonberg and Adams. Baritone Michael Chipman and pianist Barlow Bradford played a selection of intimate Brahms Lieder. Thomas Osborne's solo percussion piece, “Warm It Up,” offered a short essay on time and tempo from the European past through the Polynesian present.